Most of us have one story to tell. Xavier Dphrepaulezz has several, any one of which would be more than enough for the rest of us. Whatever he’s been through (crime, near-stardom, near-death), the word that keeps coming back is “survivor”. One of 15 children of a Somali-Caribbean immigrant, Dphrepaulezz has risen and fallen enough times to cause serious motion sickness.
His brush with fame came in the 90s, signed as Xavier to Interscope records until a car crash broke both his arms and legs, mangled his strumming hand and put him into a coma for three weeks.
When he came to, he’d been dropped by his label and dropped right back to square one. Fatherhood accidentally revived his career; after playing the Beatles on the guitar to stop his son from crying, he discovered he had a lot to say and the means to say it.
A Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album followed, leading up to his latest record, Please Don’t Be Dead.
The thing with Fantastic Negrito is that his story is so extreme, it could overwhelm the music. Or it might, were the music not even more arresting than the life of the uniquely dapper man who created it.
There’s fire there, passion, compassion, anger, pain, love, all wrapped up in a ferocious bluesy stomp and a compelling howl of a voice. There’s a reason Bernie Sanders heard Fantastic Negrito and booked him to play at events during his bid for the Democratic nomination.
This is the voice of the regular man and woman, delivered with a fervour that can’t be ignored. We spoke to Fantastic Negrito in the wake of an epic tour and enthusiastic reviews for his latest record.
So, you just got off tour, right?
I’ve been on the road for so long that I can’t even recall. I think it’s like I’ve been going since May. Six weeks in Europe, six weeks in States, five weeks in Europe, five weeks in State.
It’s been intense. And I’m just here hanging in, you know, making some noise and trying to change the world, man, one beat at a time. One pair of slacks at a time.
Do you enjoy that kind of long stint on the road, or is that something that can wears down on you after a while?
Well, I try to be pretty kind of organic about it and just let it all happen.
If we’re staying on the road, then let’s stay on the road, and let’s do it the best and let’s look the best while we do it, sound the best while we do it and we’ll get ready for the next thing. I live on a farm so I enjoy coming back home.
Yesterday, I went and hacked down a whole bag of greens, and sautéed them up with some garlic and olive oil and some soy sauce. I love the way that these greens taste, man, cause they’re not processed.
I like getting my fresh eggs from the chickens and I’m a bit of a farmer.
Do you miss the rural life when you’re on the road?
Well, I do live in Oakland but I live on a farm, so it’s kinda like urban farming, you know? One thing I like is hitting up the secondhand stores all across Europe.
That’s one of my favorite things. So, a lot of people, they stop in the town and they lookin’ for girls and drugs. I’m looking for secondhand stores.
You’ve definitely got a very unique sense of style. Is that something that you’ve cultivated or is it just you?
Yeah, I’ve always been very unique in my dress.
Even when I was a kid, it was an ideal of mine. I can really embrace the idea of individuality with fashion and to really stand out because you can easily get lost in the crowd in this world, and I feel like the clothing that I wear dictates how I feel, how I walk, how I perform.
I might wear a pair of shoes that dictates what song I do, you know? There’s really a lot of power in attire. It’s like they’re like superhero costumes.
Do you dress very differently day to day than you would on stage?
Yeah, I definitely do. Today, I’m kind of dressing a little bit more like I may be on stage because I’m gonna go shoot a few things. It’s all mood, man. That’s the thing I love about fashion, is that how I’m dressing is usually how I’m feeling, you know? Today I’m feeling celebratory and a little bit more flamboyant, so it’ll reflect that.
There’s something very tribal and African about it too for me. You know, when you look at old pictures of people within their tribes in Africa, Asia or New Guinea? I can relate. So, my style reflects a lot of different colors, and cultures.
I’m in my closet now, I’m getting dressed, and looking at like this Greek vest. I didn’t know it was from Greece, but I just thought it was great. And then there’s a couple pieces from Pakistan and some vintage stuff. I just like putting it together and I like upcycling. I have a motto like, “Take that bullshit, and turn it into good shit.”
Like something maybe that you’ve worn too many times, and you just reimagine it and redo it.
Does that work the same for you when you’re about to get on stage, then? Do you have kind of outfits that are like, “If I put this on, I’m not Xavier anymore. I’m Fantastic Negrito”?
Oh, definitely. One hundred per cent. I feel like that onstage. I mean, I can’t be Xavier. And, then I can’t really be Fantastic Negrito walking around, and going to get my groceries. You know, I’d be just like, precarious and bombastic and “Pass me that papaya!” or “Bananas Motherfucka’!”
I think there’s something great about taking all this stuff off and just joining the rest of the human race. I like to go shopping. No matter how many people know me, I kind of really refuse the idea of being a celebrity, of being famous. I really reject that. I don’t indulge in it and I don’t hide.
People are really cool. Even people who’ve seen me, “Oh, I’m a fan.”, and they’re very cool because I think I’m very cool about it. I don’t really let it define me.
Do you think if you withdraw too much away from interaction then people start to act a little crazier towards you?
Yeah, I think so, if I was showing up with bodyguards and actin’ weird. But, I can take my kid and we go play in the park. Plus, I’m not that kind of famous person.
I just got really well known older and I’m not doing pop music, so it’s a different thing when people see me out. It’s very respectful and cool. Thank God I don’t have all that hype.
You’ve had the previous experience of being the pop star back in the 90s…
Yeah, I had the previous. I really was chasing that, and wanting that. But you outgrow that. Now, I think being an artist is more like being a contributor.
That’s exciting to me now. That’s really when you reach happiness as a human being, when you become the contributor rather than the taker.
You really get to see what life is, and I feel that way as an artist right now.
Do you feel like this success now has come at the right time, as opposed to your success as Xavier in the 90s?
I think that things happen as they do, and then they are all really becoming the story of you. Everything that we are going through is really building toward to where we’re gonna be. I don’t wanna look forward to anything.
I wanna enjoy the present because that’s really important. No regrets for any of it, man. It’s just all our story of who we are on this planet, whether we’re a farmer or Julius Caesar.
I mean, you’ve probably lived more lives than most people.
Yeah, I have. I’ve lived quite a few.
Do you find that gives you a better ability to enjoy this for what it is, that you’ve kinda seen so much of the other side?
Yeah, I think that I’m not as full of myself. I don’t get too worked up about too much. I have a philosophy. Like, I don’t get too happy, and I don’t get too sad. I stay right there in the middle.
Right. So, there’s not too high to climb, and not too far to fall?
Yeah, it’s a good place to be. I think that things are happening to me at a good time, and I think I can handle it pretty well.
And, that’s good, because that’s what this is all about. We know that this business kills people, literally. You have to find a healthy balance.
Do you find that the business has changed a lot since you were first in it? You were there at the crazy peak in the 90s, when labels were throwing money at everything. To come back now, when that’s not the case, when there’s less money and more bands…
Oh, yeah! I think things will still find their way to the top. I wouldn’t have had a chance in hell in the 90s doing what I’m doing now. It is very loud out there, but I think the great things will rise to the top.
There’s such an opportunity for people to do what they wanna do. I think that’s because there’s so much more openness now, and because of the internet, you can determine these things yourself. I won a Grammy without a label.
There’s always gonna be things that are wonderful and terrible all happening at the same time. I actually prefer this. This is better not to get money thrown at you and just get out there. I mean, I was just grinding on the street.
There is that freedom there now that you don’t need permission from a record label to make a record.
Yeah, I love it! The Last Days of Oakland was a critically-acclaimed, Grammy-winning album, and then I made something completely different. I don’t wanna be stuck in some crazy, psychobabble.
You end up having to take your life or get on drugs. It’s like, be an artist. This medium is incredible, expressionism… I don’t want those other things. I don’t wanna be some cookie-cutter throwaway artist, because I think that’s what this business does.
It takes people, sucks them dry, uses them up and then says “Next!” and that’s painful to people. Some people can’t handle that. Like I said, this business kills people. I’m not exaggerating and you know that I’m not.
That’s something I wanted to talk to you about. You worked with Chris Cornell from Soundgarden quite a lot…
I did. We did three tours together over a year and a half, which is probably about 70 shows, in very close proximity to each other, so we developed a pretty good relationship.
I know I was completely shell-shocked by Chris’s suicide…
Yeah, everybody was! No one could believe that happened. But that’s the reality of the business that we’re in. I really learned a lot about Chris.
His heart was as big as Texas. His humility was like that of a monk. He’s a fine example of a musician who was fearless and evolved with such grace.
Does Chris’s death make you stop and think about your own limits, like “There’s a point I’m not going to cross, because it’s just gonna bring me back into that dark world again”?
Yeah, I think you gotta not want to be famous. I think that’s huge. I don’t try to like make hit records and be accepted. I think that’s really the downfall so I’m very, very, very cautious about that.
You said you don’t set out to make hit records…
No, I don’t. I just try to connect things that I think are great and that are compelling and interesting. But, I think trying to fit into stuff is what stresses out artists.
And, they build this box for you and want you to get into this box. And, they have this beautiful box for you. But, that box can kill you, you know?
So, when you were making The Last Days of Oakland, did you have a sense that this was something special that you were working on? That this was something that people were gonna connect with?
No, I only wanna make a record that I think is gonna be great. I never had that feeling like, “Oh my God! This is gonna be big! And, I’m shakin’ up the world!”
I don’t wanna entertain that. I think that’s dangerous. You gotta just believe in something that’ll be incredible to you. If I feel it, I know that some people will feel it too.
What’s it like being in the studio for you? Is it quite a relaxed environment?
I generally record in my kind of art gallery. My records have never been actually recorded in an actual studio. I think it’s very inspiring to be around a bunch of art. It’s my gallery that I own, The Blackball Universe.
That’s where I’ve done the last two records. I just didn’t like the studio environment, so I use kind of this environment of creativity. I just wanna be inspired, man, you know? Ooh, inspiration!
Does winning a Grammy change how you approach the next record? Is it different writing and recording something that you know more people are going to hear?
I’ve never thought about awards when making a record and I never will. It’s a great honor to win a Grammy, but you just can’t think about things like that. I think if you do, it damages the process.
The studio is the one place you can be honest. No matter how many people may hear it. You just record it with everything that you have inside of you, with conviction.
It feels like quite an animated record, especially when it’s addressing the problems that America’s facing at the moment. Is that something that was at the forefront of your mind when you were writing it?
I was definitely thinking about the state of America. When I picked the artwork, which is me waking up from a three-week coma, I thought to myself, “Wow this picture really symbolizes the state of America.”
We’re battered but we can still come back. I think it’s important for artist to play a role in society where people can come to us for honesty.
On ‘Bad Guy Necessity’, you talk about needing bad guys so that someone can be the savior. Kavanaugh’s on the Supreme Court, reports are coming out about the environment reaching a tipping point by 2040. Things look bleak. Where do you see the savior coming from?
I didn’t make up this good guy/bad guy paradigm, but I think fear is the greatest commodity in the world. It’s the weapon of choice for many people who want to be seen as saviors.
But a savior is really ourselves and what we do with the power that we have. People really have the power if they want it.
As a black American artist in 2018, do you feel a responsibility to use your voice to address these things?
I don’t wake up every day and say “Ooh, I’m a black artist.” It’s just not something that I do. I think as a human being on the planet earth and as an artist, I feel the importance of contributing something.
I happen to be black and I love it. I come from a very proud tradition of music culture. So as for being part black, I’ll just thank my parents for that.